Advancing Children's Health

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Developing Heart Healthy Habits in Children

Published by , on Feb 18, 2014

Bean_Melanie (4)Dr. Melanie Bean, Director of Clinical and Behavioral Services at the Healthy Lifestyles Center, shared her tips for developing heart healthy habits on Virginia This Morning. Here she answers a few additional questions about the Healthy Lifestyles Center and how it is designed to help children and their families learn healthy lifestyle habits.Can you tell us more about Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU’s Healthy Lifestyles Center?CHoR’s Healthy Lifestyles Center is a comprehensive pediatric obesity treatment and research center, funded in large part by the Children’s Hospital Foundation. We have teams of specialists including physicians, dietitians, exercise physiologists, health psychologist, and surgeons, in addition to strong research infrastructure. Our specialists provide multidisciplinary care for children and adolescents with overweight and obesity and associated medical or psychological difficulties. Some of this care occurs as part of clinical research studies. The hallmark of all of our treatments is lifestyle intervention.We also offer bariatric (weight loss) surgery for select older adolescents with severe obesity and related medical problems who have participated in but not sufficiently responded to intensive lifestyle treatment. There are also other criteria for patients to be eligible to consider surgery as an option – our team conducts a comprehensive assessment to see if surgery is the right treatment for that patient as part of their overall care, or if continuing with lifestyle intervention is more appropriate.How do you help children and families create heart healthy habits?We first conduct an individual assessment by a physician, dietitian, and health psychologist. Based on these assessments, we develop a treatment plan to meet the patient’s unique needs, which at times includes suggestions to participate in a research study, such as the TEENS program or NOURISH. We feel it is very important to meet families at their level of readiness, taking their specific strengths and barriers into consideration. It is also important to identify if emotional or psychological issues are contributing to continued weight gain or difficulty with weight loss.Age of the child is also important to consider. For example, for a younger child, our treatment might be more focused on parent change and how parents can develop positive eating and exercise behaviors in their child. For older adolescents who have more autonomy over their eating and exercise behaviors, treatment might focus more on the adolescent. For all patients, though, treatment is individualized.  Some strategies that are integrated into care include:

  1. Setting behavioral goals: as opposed to focusing on weight loss, we focus on specific, measurable behaviors, such as number of fruits and vegetables consumed in a day
  2. keeping track of progress on those goals: in this way, we can look back at successes and challenges and problem solve barriers to meeting those goals, in addition to celebrating successes
  3. Social support: family-based change is far more effective (and less potentially damaging to a child’s self-esteem) than attempting to have a child change his or her behaviors in isolation.

We believe it is important to look at the whole person and identify factors associated with success and areas that need treatment to help improve overall health. We also like to build on successes to start with areas where families can feel confident and then grow from there.heart-apple-stock (4)Why is it so important to develop healthy eating and exercise habits early in life?We know that the older we get, the harder it gets to change our behaviors! It is important that children experience the benefits of healthy habits, so that when they venture out into the world (which has far more cues to be unhealthy than it does to be healthy) they are well-equipped to make better choices. Also, establishing healthy habits at a young age is essential for prevention of overweight and obesityWhat tips do you have for parents of children who are struggling with weight? First know that you are not alone- one in three children is overweight or obese. Thus this is a serious and widespread epidemic that can be very scary and frustrating for parents. Some tips to get started might be to look at what behaviors you are role modeling for your child. Are there some areas that you can start to change and implement family-wide? Remember that the best predictor of children’s behavior is their parent’s behavior! Are there some family activities you can do? Take a walk together after dinner- or go to a park on a weekend?  Are you eating family meals at home with the TV/ screens off? Can you start by cutting back on sugared beverages? These might be some first steps.Second, we know that many children and adolescents are experimenting with diets and often try unhealthy strategies to lose weight. We recommend that parents talk to their children about how they feel about their body and their weight, and see if they have thought about making changes, or if they are interested in getting some help in this area. These can be tough conversations to have, as weight is often a very sensitive topic- thus the help of a health psychologist might be very useful in entering into these discussions. Our specialists at the Healthy Lifestyles Center can help your family identify ways to help you reach your health goals, and provide support and encouragement along the way. If you are concerned about your child’s health, consult your pediatrician to discuss options including a visit to the Healthy Lifestyles Center. 

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